Monday, 19 November 2012

Death: The High Cost of Living - recommended reading


Of all the characters in Neil Gaiman's ten Sandman books, none perhaps captured the reader's affections and interest so much as his reinvention of the personification of Death.

It wasn't just that Death was portrayed as a pretty, teenage, Goth-styled geek-grrl (about as far removed from the more usual Grim Reaper stereotype as it's possible to get!), it was also due in no small part to her bright, sunny disposition.

It was perhaps inevitable, then, that she would feature in her own spin-off title and, indeed, Gaiman kindly obliged with two - Death: The Time of Your Life and, my favourite of the two, Death: The High Cost of Living.

What's it all about, then?

Like many of Mignola's HellBoy stories, Death: The High Cost of Living takes a theme from folklore and spins a modern story from it. In this case, the starting point is the traditional belief that Death has to spend one day a year as a mortal, in order to be able to appreciate just what it means to be alive; to understand better the value of what she's taking when a person dies.

As she spends her day among the living, Gaiman's cheery Goth-girl version of Death finds herself helping both Sexton Furnival, a boy who - at the ripe old age of sixteen - has already decided that life isn't worth living, and Mad Hettie, a character from the Sandman books who has decided never to die.

Art

As I've said many times to many people, I'm no expert on comic art and - truthfully - I'm always impressed by artwork which is reasonably realistic and is easy to follow, but seldom impressed with artwork that tries to be too innovative.

And, on those criteria, the artwork here does a good, workman-like job. I know Chris Bachalo (pencils) has a lot of fans and they'd probably like to lynch me for daring to damn their hero with such faint praise. But I really do mean that as a compliment. The characters are recognisable from one panel to the next, the backgrounds are nicely detailed and the panel layouts are clear (no mean feat given the number of panels a Gaiman script can try to squeeze onto a page!)

In short, Bachalo's artwork serves the story rather than the artist's pretensions. And that's a good thing!

Writing

Even allowing for the fact that Gaiman tends to cram his pages with more panels than most of today's comic writers and crams those panels with more dialogue than pretty much anyone (except, perhaps, Alan Moore and Frank Miller), at barely 75 pages of actual story, Death: The High Cost of Living is not a long book. It is, however, an exquisitely crafted book.

Gaiman may be better known for his Sandman series but, as graphic novels, those books are - in my opinion - very flawed. Despite having many excellent parts, they also have sections which wander off-topic, sequences which have been shoehorned in just to create a spurious connection with the rest of the DC Universe, a main character whose role actually changes (from Lord of Dreams to Lord of Stories) for no reason other than to enable the writer to take liberties with his own creation, and sections that aren't really comics at all.

The two spin-off titles featuring Death are free of those flaws. In fewer pages than most of today's writers would need to tell one story, Gaiman manages to include several different plot-threads, keeps each of them on track and, ultimately, knits them all together into a single, satisfying whole.

The dialogue is realistically colloquial and in character. In particular, the dialogue of Death herself is, at turns, witty, insightful, thought-provoking and naive - and yet always to the point and in character. It's a joy to read!

It's a Wonderful Life

Death spending a day as one of the living in order to better appreciate the value of life is subject matter that could have been tailor-made for Gaiman's perky, cheerful version of Death.

In stark contrast to the gloomy images that have typified most depictions of death from Hieronymous Bosch through to Ingmar Bergman, Gaiman's cute Goth girl dressed in emo-chic, has an infectious, positive outlook on life. To her, everything is wondrous and life-affirming, and is to be appreciated all the more precisely because the time we have to enjoy it is so fleeting.

So, if you want a reason to read this book, then you could read it because it's a perfect antidote to the cynicism that colours so much of our everyday lives. Or, of course, you could just read it because it's a well-written, highly entertaining tale featuring one of comic-dom's most loveable and engaging characters!